Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Celtic Myth & Religion

McFarland Publishers; isbn 9780786464760

Celtic Myth and Religion is an effort to summarize what is presently known, surmised and guessed about pre-Christian Celtic religion, and “indigenous religious traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples, from the first millennium B.C.E. to the early modern era”. MacLeod does a fine job of it, combining summary recitations of facts with speculative efforts in a balanced and reasonable way. This book deserves an immediate place on the shelves of those interested in the topic.

The book amounts to 200 pages of closely-set text, and there is plenty of straight repetition of lore in the first sections. The first part provides the basics from describing the sources to general summaries of the Celtic ideas of the Otherworld, and the place of Druid, poets and seers. The tales and mythic figures of Britain, Gaul and Ireland get a very fast yet detailed summary. This is accomplished in some 60 pages, so it isn’t done in depth. This book is really a primer, and also a wonderful guide to using the indexes of other books.

The author is likely to be a Celtic Pagan of some sort, though she doesn’t out herself in the text. She says immediately that she intends to view the material as the sacred tradition of a people, due as much deference as an anthropologist today would give any tribal system. Throughout she is willing to refer to the gods and spirits in reverential terms. She doesn’t hesitate to assume that some folkloric and literary descriptions of Otherworld visions preserve elements of pre-Christian heritage. The very good news is that while she freely makes the same kind of statements about Celtic lore that we are accustomed to hearing from modern Pagans, each statement is footnoted. Thirteen pages of footnotes and a nine-page bibliography provide all the background the scholastic set might need.

Part two is given to “Celtic Shamanism and Wisdom Traditions.” Yeah, whatever. I’m over being upset about writers using ‘shamanism’ where I might use ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’. There *are* interesting parallels between Altaic shamanism and some of the methods described for Irish mages. The fact is that the chapters in this section, covering such things as magical flight and vision, three-worlds cosmology and plant and animal symbolism are excellent summaries of Celtic lore, whatever general term one applies to the magic-working of the Druids. MacLeod provides a useful summary of ogham going so far as to propose her own understanding of divinatory meanings, after discussing the controversy over ogham divination.

The third part of the book deals with several complexes of Celtic lore, including the Arthurian and Mabinogion material. There are chapters on the Ancestors and on the Fairies, and two very useful chapters on the seasonal calendar and customs. The first appendix, on the “Rights of Women in Early Celtic Culture” is surely best short summary of an often disputed topic that I’ve seen. The second appendix offers new translations of several Gaelic and Welsh verses, and the third provides a comprehensive booklist in a more readable format than the scholastic bibliography.

It’s been some while since there was news this good for those interested in Celtic polytheism. MacLeod has assembled in one volume most of what there is to know about pre-Christian Celtic religion, accessibly and concisely. Her work deserves to be on the shelf of everyone learning or teaching the Old Celtic Ways.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My 2012 Spring & Summer Teaching Schedule

We’ll be out and about a good bit this summer. Most of these are ADF gatherings, but I want to make a pitch to my readers to consider showing up even if you aren’t a member or buddy. ADF festivals are usually smaller gatherings (of maybe 100) made up of people who are interested in ancient religion and modern Paganism. There is usually a high percentage of musicians – the guitars-to-drums ratio is more balanced than at many fests, and long conversations about books, ideas and ancient ways are the norm. The workshop quality is generally high, and there are often juicy rituals, including at least good general worship and blessing.

• 4/19-22: Trillium Spring Gathering – Cross Junction, VA Early gathering in the beautiful hills of the Cumberland Gap. Lots of music and great workshops.

• 5/24-29: Wellspring Gathering – Brushwood Folklore Center, NY
This is one of my home-fests, organized by our Grove. It includes the ADF Annual Meeting, and a lot of organizational folderol, but also some of the hottest group ritual of the year, in one of the best-developed Pagan temples in North America. Concert, mead-brewing competition, Artisan’s Competition, the Wellspring Bardic Chair competition.

• 6/28 - 7/1: Eight Winds Festival – Tahoe National Forest, CA 
Great line-up, featuring Cei Serith and Erynn Laurie. I’ll be doing the original Court of Brigid Working, as well as teaching a drumming class.

• 7/10-16: The Starwood Festival – Wisteria Campground, OH
The Big One, now in our 32nd year. The classic festival, with daily and nightly musical performances, over 150 workshops, rituals, and presentations, streets of merchants, etc. If you haven’t been for a while, come back; if you’ve never come, do.

• Dates TBD: The Summerland Gathering - Yellow Springs, OH: An excellent ADF gathering, with good ritual, hot bonfire parties and a great night of music.

• 9/27-30: Earth Warriors Festival – Clarksville, OH
Not an ADF event, but an up-and coming regional fest featuring folks like Chris Penczak, Kelliana, and Devin Hunter. I’ll be doing a teaching and sacrifice rite focused on Dagda Mor.

The trip to California for Eight Winds will include some days of tourist opportunity in the state. Hope to see more Pagans during that time, maybe get to SF before or after the fest.
Fun, fun, fun!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grimoire Envy, and the Trials of Reconstructionism

So, I'll let this be my last round on this topic for now, but in talking about the work of inventing a ritual magic model for a Celtic Pagan system, several things have poked their way into my head.

I’m torn in two directions in my approach to magic, spirituality and religion. Maybe more than two.
First, I think that there’s merit in learning both what early-modern magic-users and pre-Christian worshippers really did. While I do think that the western tech world is better in many ways for humans than the world of the ancients, I think that the modern world has largely lost an entire body of method and understanding surrounding the spiritual world. I assume that ancient Europe had a full menu of methods for altering awareness, generating interior psycho-spiritual effects and contacting non-physical intelligences. Unfortunately a thousand years and more of deliberate effort to wipe out that tech has reduced them, in many cases, to fragments.

This is certainly the case in our efforts to create a working modern polytheism based on ancient European models. Even in the Mediterranean world, where literacy and stone-carving have allowed a large body of Pagan lore to survive, we are still dealing with a tattered and incomplete remnant. Most especially we have little or no idea of the mindset of the common worshipper, of the relative place of belief and praxis, of the emotional nature of the relationship with the gods and spirits or much of anything else. In Northern Europe the case is worse. We have nothing literary at all from pre-Christian times and much less hard archeology.

So why do I bother? That’s the second fork. I’m simply drawn to ancient days. To an aesthetic of Iron-age Europe, in a culture where the Gods and Spirits are close and the work of mages, poets and other weirdoes is valued. It’s a love for the culture and music of the Gaels, and a fascination with their tales and ways that goes back almost as far in my personal history as my fascination with sorcery and occultism itself.

If I had to decide which labels are biggest on my label-cloud it would be Occultist or Magician followed or equaled by Pagan, with Celtic a close third. That’s one reason why I never meshed too well with some reconstructionists. When I say Celtic Pagan, I’m mostly interested in the first term as it is modified by the second. When the Irish people cease to be polytheists I simply lose some interest in their history. That doesn’t put me well in line with those who want reconstructionism to point toward sympathy with modern anti-colonial or nationalist causes, or with those who seek ‘cultural purity’ (a notion that would have been nonsense to the ancients in most cases). Likewise when I say magic I often say Pagan Magic, because I’m not interested in varying my theological position based on that of the author of a method I’m lifting. That doesn’t sit well with grimoire reconstructionists and those doing a strictly post-Agrippa, heretical-but-folk-Christian-y system.

Nevertheless I love the Iron Age Celtic or Gaelic idiom, and love the ritual work I do within it. Rufus envied my freedom to experiment, and I do have some of that, though I’ve tried to keep myself inside the cultural parameters of the Gaelic experiment. Since we don’t have example of what the ancient Druid magicians *did* do, I must go about devising things they *could have* done. Some of those may be good enough guesses to be things they *might have* done. Nevertheless there are huge holes to fill, that mainly involve lifting tech from other systems.

That doesn’t really sit well with conservative Celtic reconstructionists, who often seem to limit themselves to what can be proved to have been done. Likewise the fact that the 17th century and later are not eras that really push my romanticism buttons. If what I wanted was to be a waistcoated cunning-man, healing by the saints and hunting treasure by calling upon local devils, there’s actually plenty of material on which to base a practice. Likewise if I wanted to be a Scot or a man of County Claire from that same period I could adopt those social and material trappings, and do some folkloric Catholic-fairy practice. I find it unlikely that Celtic-language-speaking folks of that age shared much more in common with the ancients than I do, and I tend to think I can learn more about the polytheistic Celts by studying polytheistic Africans or Japanese than by studying Catholic 18th century Gaels. (That said, one way that early modern people did in fact retain old ways was in the continuing survival of spirit-contact and awareness of the non-material world. That’s one thing that makes early-modern folk culture interesting to occultism.)

My problem is that the style I dig is an Iron-Age Celtic magician-priest. While we can be as certain as we need to be that such folks existed, we have diddle-all record of their work, much less surviving manuals. Celtic recons attempt to work around this problem by drawing on medieval Celtic-nations literature and Gaelic folklore collected in the last 300 years. The notion that ancient Pagan ways survive in early modern folkways is being seriously challenged in modern scholarship. Nevertheless the ethnicist argument – that those who speak the old language and have grown out of the previous culture will tend to preserve things most sympathetic with their ancient roots – still gets plenty of traction. I certainly draw on it myself, for things like herb and stone lore, ways of dealing with the Locals, and snippets of charm language.

However for larger patterns, such as what a fire-sacrifice would have been like, I draw upon cultural comparison. Romans, Greeks, Persians and Balts all practiced fire-sacrifice, and all were in direct contact with some Celtic culture or another. Classical authors describe Celts as doing sacrifice in a way that they plainly recognized, and distinctly said that Germans didn’t do so. That makes me feel comfortable using comparative ritual to reconstruct a Druidic fire sacrifice. If I can reconstruct the greatest of the core rites of ancient religion, then I can devolve those principles both into smaller, folky charms and into solitary personal occultism. With twenty years of the religion part behind me I’m now proceeding into the personal occultism part.

In that vein the best news in occult scholarship of the last fifty years is the idea that medieval and early-modern grimoire practice retains substantial amounts of technique developed within a polytheistic, animistic (i.e. Pagan) model. When we remove the coercive, light-vs-dark mythology of later Christianity and replace it with a cooperative, respectful attitude to the spirits, borrowed from ATR and conceptually from pre-Christian Europe, the grimoires offer a clear and direct order of work by which to deal with the spirits. It’s a form that belongs to all those of European heritage (if not to everyone, since it has no ‘tribal’ context) and which has already been transformed between religious systems at least once. Thus it is ripe to be reclaimed by the polytheism in which it arose.

So, on I go, inventing new liturgy and trance tech to guide myself toward contacting the spirits I want to contact. As always, it is an artistic choice. I could be doing this through Kardecist spiritism, or any number of other systems, but I’ve gotten myself all bound up with my Gods, and that’s not something I plan to have time to re-do in this incarnation. At this late date I’m working with what I’ve developed. The grimoiric model provides an outline of what needs to be included in a grammar of magic. Following the outline would allow any aspiring mage to design her own system which, as RO said, may well be what we all do anyway. I certainly have.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Two Powers on Youtube

I've posted a couple of recorded guidance exercises for our Druidic Two Powers exercises. They are available at my Youtube channel. Expect more teaching vid over the next season. The longer one is a fairly full induction with relaxation and entrancement up front. The shorter is more of a pre-ritual entrancement charm, meant for those who have become facile at calling the flow of Earth and Heaven. Here's that shorter one for the record:

Friday, February 3, 2012

Reply to Rufus Opus

I have for some while been an admirer of Rufus Opus and his diligent efforts to make renaissance spirit-arte in an esoteric Christian model effective for a modern person. Those interested in a story of a modern occultist's work, challenges and changes while dealing with demons and angels should read the back posts on his blog in detail. So I was pleased to see him write about the Court of Brigid work, though a little less pleased at his concerns. Read the comments on his post to see the discussion between us. One of the excellent things about RO is that despite strong opinions he is usually willing to discuss ideas reasonably.

Here's a more specific reply to some of his concerns. It's somewhat snipped so do read the original in its entirety at the above link. RO in italic:

I've been following Ian Corrigan's development of his "Court of Brigid" rites with a great deal of interest. He describes it as an "effort to develop a ritual spirit arte that applies the general principles of Euro-Grimoiric methods using the Druidic Order of Ritual and inside a pre-Neoplatonic, Indo-European mythic cosmos."

But personally, I find the whole thing fundamentally distasteful. In the '80s and '90s, it was really popular to make up your own flavor of Wicca… Ian's up to the same old mischief, only he's gotten rid of the GD stuff and went back further to the approaches of the grimoires.

Just to be clear, my study of Grimoire materials is mainly to get a sense of the outline and structure of the work. I have examined the early modern grimoires and the PGM as well as ATR and other non-monotheistic spirit systems. But mainly, the rites I’ve been working are structured in the Druidic ritual forms developed over the last 25 years as an effort to structure Pagan ritual that doesn’t depend on Gardner, Crowley, Agrippa or even the Neoplatonists. That form is based on Euro-Pagan sacrificial ritual, archeology of ancient religions and on comparative work with Indic and other surviving systems. While that ritual form is brand-new in historical terms it does have two decades of experimental application in several dozen ritual groups. That said, these occult adaptations are my own, and my own fault.

I see a neopaganized version of the kinds of things I've been blogging about for the last six years, and I feel a bit used, and uncompensated. (That may be code for jealous, but I'm not entirely sure.)

Well, I’ll freely admit that the modern fashion for applying grimoire magic practically (and RO’s work is high on that list) is what has led me to attempt to do so for myself. The fact is I’ve loved grimoire-style magic all my life, having participated in fairly orthodox Solomonic evocation back in college (‘fairly’ orthodox – we still called on Pagan gods as the primary authorities back in 1976). But if anyone should feel ‘used’ about all this it’s Jake Stratton-Kent, whose ideas about restoring the grimoires to a polytheistic, animist worldview were the real match to the fuse of my efforts. I should especially thank RO for some really practical things, like permission to print out a table of practice. I print it out in light grey, and go over it in a proper pen...

I don't know if my issues with the approach are based on anything valid or not though. We all adapt stuff to suit our needs and desires…
We're all creating new systems based on the old ones, to varying degrees, but never exactly as performed at any stage in history. We make adjustments, include pieces of different approaches according to our own personal intuition and input from our glorified spirit guides about what needs to go where. …
Hell, I don't think any two magicians have ever performed the exact same rite, honestly. There's always variance.
But there's something about neopagan adaptations that rubs me the wrong way, in the same way that the worst kinds of Chaos Magic rubs me the wrong way. It just has an air of fraudulence,... The Court of Brigid? Really? What Bardic epic points to Brigid ever having a court of spirit assistants that were ever conjured and worked with the way a grimoire magician works with the rank and file of angels and demons?

This isn’t the place to give a lesson in Gaelic myth. Those of us who are called to those Gods do have serious scholastic issues in determining their nature and desires. Hell, even Hellenic reconstructionists with all their resources must in the end fall back on direct invocation and personal revelation, and adapt their work to modern conditions. Those working in a Celtic mythic structure have still less to go on. However, my years and years of devotion to the Gods will not be set aside to satisfy even my own scholastic pique over lack of certainty.

Wasn't she a Warrior Queen or something? Boudica, the Celtic Warrior Princess? Trapped in a tower by an evil Fairy who used her hair for magical purposes, but it could never be cut with iron shears, and then one day she let an errant prince into her tower with her hair, and he raped her while she slept, and the twin babies were lost in a forest when the ravens ate their trail of breadcrumbs or something?

Dude… If you don’t know a single thing about something, just say so.

I'm not real sure what she did, but I'm pretty sure she never had a Court of Servant Spirits, or responded to any conjurations.

Here’s how that goes:
1: Gaelic culture was an Indo-European (IE) culture, closely related to the surrounding cultures, including Latin, Greek and Germanic. Interestingly, Latin is the closest IE language to Celtic languages.
2: In IE cultures we find the Gods as the ruling family of a clan of beings – their offspring, and secondary family members, as well as those who maintain their work. We see this especially in the Greek notion of the daemons – servitor spirits of the Gods who carry our sacrifices to them, and their blessings to us. To judge from world spiritist tradition, from Neoplatonism to ATR to Tantra to Quimbanda, this is how the divine works – it manifests in numerous beings who do the direct work of the Gods in the world. My understanding is that if an educated Hellene had a visitation of Hermes (say) they would understand it to have been a daemon, perhaps wearing the hat and sandals for authority, who conveyed the word and will of the God to the mortal.
3: I applied this model to Gaelic lore based on the notion that next-door cultures with similar heritages don’t generally have totally contrasting cosmologies and worldviews.
4: In the actual lore of the Gaels (and remember, we have zero ‘Celtic mythology’ written down by Celtic Pagans) we find the Gods considered as part of the category called the ‘sidhe’. That category is too complex to discuss in detail here, but it includes the idea of hosts of minor beings who attend and serve the Greater beings (the Gods). While we have no clear depiction of the ideas of pre-Christian Gaelic religion it is entirely reasonable to envision the Gods as Nobles who rule through their various servitors.
The biggest leap involved was equating the daemons with the Gaelic ‘Aes Sidhe’ (people of the mound/seat-of-the-gods). Considering how often Otherworldly beings arrive in mortal places in the tales we must assume that there are non-deific (sub deific…) spirits who interact with mortals. It’s a short hop to seeing them working for their Kings and Queens.
5: Did the Druids ‘conjure’ them? That can’t be told with certainty. Do magicians all over Europe ask the Gods ( or God) to ‘send their spirits’ to do a task? Do shamans go to their greater Gods and ask to be given lesser spirits to aid them? Yes, and there’s no reason to exclude Celtic magicians from that model.
So while I can’t show that Gaelic mages conjured servants of their gods, it seems entirely reasonable to think they did, and to think that I could. That left me to consider how to do it. Being more of a high-church than a folk-magic sort of guy, I gravitated to formal rites of offering and calling, and looked at the grimoires as a model that had persisted from polytheistic times into modern usage. Being what I call a ‘liberal’ reconstructionist, I don’t have to have something be proven to have been used in ancient days in order to put it to use. “Likely’ or even ‘possible’ can be enough if it is something that pushes my buttons, especially if it reflects a usage in some other working tradition.

Incidentally, while I have used the term pre-Neoplatonic, I must admit that the notions of spirit hierarchy in late classical Neoplatonism were an inescapable influence. I haven’t imitated them directly, but their sense of levels of authority is certainly present in my approach in that working.

If he managed a visible manifestation that changed his world entirely, and demonstrated the 16 or so sub-spirits of the system were at least as potent as the saints of the Catholic tradition in meeting the needs of the incarnate, it would go a long way towards convincing me that he's onto something real, something big, and something effective.

Me too. We shall see. This is straight -up experimental magic. The spirits that answered our call (who I don’t see as the only ones of Her court, and not necessarily the most important) are mostly about art, inspiration and healing. The few who agreed to respond to my direct call in the last phase of the work are certainly in that category – more poets than smiths. Do watch el bloggo for occasional reports as I attempt to employ them.
I think spirits usually become powerful through being called and offered to. Getting these beings closely attached to the mortal world and producing direct results may take a while. Also, I’m not working in the ancient world or modern Brazil, and very little spiritist background culture exists to help multiply their appearances. So we’ll see what results we get in what way and at what speed. I know that others who worked the initial rite have already reported insights and, well, life changes as a result of their contact with the spirits.

But ultimately, he doesn't have to prove anything to me. He has to prove its effectiveness and applicability to no one but himself. Regardless, I'm watching what happens because I want to delve into some of the stuff Jake talks about in Geosophia, and I want to do it using the Modern Angelic Grimoire techniques, talk to the Heroes and Sibyls in a Crystal like God intended.

See, when we talk about conjuring Pagan objects of devotion into a containment field using renaissance God names, I get a wave of “Hey wait” that makes me think I know where your original objections came from. Pot, meet kettle…
May we all grow wise in the work.